Social media may help determine a winner before the debate is even over

After President Obama and Mitt Romney face off on Wednesday, the atmosphere surrounding their first presidential debate will be one of quickly gathered polling, closely monitored focus groups and plentiful punditry, all centered on the issue of who won and who lost.

Media outlets will be going to great lengths to answer that question, even before the debate concludes. The unmistakable difference this time around is the influence of social media, which has helped shape perceptions this election cycle.

The coverage will be markedly different even from that of 2008, when Twitter had yet to take hold, second-screen multitasking was still a novelty and the big news innovations seemed to be about the user-generated experience on YouTube.

That was evident in the flurry of Twitter activity that surrounded Clint Eastwood’s speech before the Republican National Convention, when users quickly created hashtags and one launched the handle @InvisibleObama.

“The new wrinkle here will be the shift toward real-time reactions — in other words, to a greater extent than ever debate evaluations will be taking place during the event as opposed to after,” said Alan S. Schroeder, professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern U. in Boston and author of “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High Risk TV.” “I suspect that this grassroots response will influence the professional pundits more than professional pundits will influence voters, though of course both are likely to influence each other.”

With coverage anchored by Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly, Fox News will incorporate exclusive Twitter data, including its Political Index, into its coverage, as a gauge of social media sentiment of the candidates, and it will draw on Twitter to create a list of the top five most-discussed topics throughout the evening.

Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper and John King will lead CNN’s coverage from Washington, along with Candy Crowley and Erin Burnett from Denver, where Burnett will have a focus group of undecided voters who will offer their reactions. After the debate, many of its pundits will grade the event, and there will be survey results from Facebook users and a “reality check” team devoted to fact checking. The network is also using the event to fully unveil a new studio specially designed for the debates and election night.

Sometime during the 11 p.m. hour, CNN expects to have the results of a poll it conducted with ORC Intl.

“None of these things provide an absolute verdict of who won and who lost, but each of them are pieces of the puzzle,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and senior VP.

MSNBC’s coverage will be led by Rachel Maddow along with Chris Matthews, Al Sharpton, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Hayes and Steve Schmidt. NBC News, with Brian Williams as anchor, is using technology from Mass Relevance to integrate social media into analysis, in addition to a truth squad editorial team to check the facts.

CBS News’ coverage, anchored by Scott Pelley, will include a poll of 500 uncommitted voters done in conjunction with GfK’s KnowledgePanel.

ABC News coverage is anchored by Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos; on its digital platform it continues its partnership with Yahoo News. The latter is doing live polling throughout the debate to gauge users opinions about the issues and the election in partnership with Attensity. Yahoo is launching an Elections Dashboard on its social TV app, IntoNow; a “who will win” feature will allows user to vote on who will take the election and by what margin.

Other outlets are aiming to organize social media to make it easier to monitor reaction. Current TV’s coverage, led by Al Gore, will include Twitter streams running alongside its broadcast screen, organized with titles like “Team Obama,” “Team Romney,” “Mainstream Media” and “States With High Unemployment.”

And while the streaming of debates may no longer be a novelty, as it will proliferate across network Web platforms and other portals, some recently launched ventures are using the debates to distinguish their brands. HuffPostLive will feature four different “conversational hubs,” with real-time comments on the debate. Each of the rooms will have a specific focus: political junkies, young voters, women and comedy.

One of the ideas, said HuffPost Live president and co-creator Roy Sekoff, is to reflect the fact that viewers are using more than one screen, “especially with big events like this.” It will be followed by post-debate analysis and more reactions the next day.

“Now I can’t imagine an event like a debate without immediately thinking, How is this playing on Twitter? How is this playing on Facebook?” Sekoff said.

Twitter itself will release details of reaction about a half-hour after the debate ends, according to a spokeswoman.

For all the changes in technology, however, what actually happens inside the debate hall at the U. of Denver is likely to resemble what happened in 2008 or 2004 or even 2000. Moderated by Jim Lehrer, this first debate is carefully calibrated to give each candidate segmented amounts of time, with little opportunity for crosstalk and certainly no whooping and hollering allowed from the audience. Last week, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced a new venture with AOL, Yahoo and YouTube called “The Voice Of…” in which users can interact with the issues and share their opinions, but that won’t change the structure of this first meet-up, either.

It may not matter.

Schroeder said, “Whatever the case, the reaction to the debate will happen faster than ever, and it strikes me that we may be seeing an end to a distinct post-debate period in which judgments are rendered primarily after the fact.”

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